Regenerative Horticulture – An Introduction for Gardeners
This article explores the basic concept of regenerative growing whether it be agriculture- or horticulture-based. If you are looking at ways to connect with and improve your backyard garden, field crops, vegetable beds, lawns or even garden planters consider sustainable gardening techniques that improve your soils, water, and garden ecosystems. In so doing, you and your gardens will benefit in measurable ways.
You may read about or even practice some level of organic gardening, permaculture, biodynamic farming or agroforestry, agroecology, restoration ecology, holistic management or keyline design but the buzz term of the century is “regenerative.” Regenerative is being applied to everything from emotional therapy to food to medicine, agriculture, and horticulture. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the term “regenerative,” means “relating to the improvement of a place or system, especially by making it more active or successful.” With respect to growing plants, regenerative refers to the conservation and rehabilitation of farming or gardening systems, with the focal point being building and maintaining soil health and vitality. Regenerative agriculture also focuses on increasing biodiversity, enhancing ecosystem services, building resilience to climate change, and improving the water cycle among other things. Regenerative agriculture is not exactly a specific practice but an umbrella term that utilizes a combination of other sustainable practices or techniques. Some techniques may include sheet mulching, employing crop rotation, using no-till, or reduced till practices, utilizing regenerative grazing management, recycling farm waste, building effective and permanent perennial pastures and grasslands, creating pollinator buffers around gardens and fields, adding compost to gardens, using permanent cover crops, building the soil food web and capturing and sequestering atmospheric carbon.
A Brief History
Based on the idea and practice of growing food sustainability, regenerative agriculture was coined by the Rodale Institute and resulted in the formation of the Regenerative Agriculture Association. The association started publishing books on the topic back in 1897 and 1988. In 2014, the association released a paper titled, “Regenerative Organic Agriculture and Climate Change” which stated that by using regenerative farming techniques, more than 100% of current yearly CO2 emissions could be sequestered. In 2002, restorative agriculture was defined as a technique to rebuild both the amount and quality of topsoil while at the same time restoring local biodiversity such as native pollinators and improving watershed function. While the term “regenerative” has been around for decades, it has increasingly appeared in the literature especially in the fields of environmental science, plant science, ecology and agritech. Today many books have been published on the topic and several organizations worldwide have been promoting regenerative agriculture techniques. Companies like General Mills, Nestle, Timberland, The North Face, Unilever, and PepsiCo are now collaborating with farmers to establish regenerative agriculture practices for their supply chains.
While there is some confusion over the definition of regenerative agriculture, several companies have analyzed a database of over 279 articles pertaining to the field and found that certain key, principals form the foundation of regenerative agriculture:
- Improving water quality, retention, percolation, and availability
- Enhancing and improving soil health and fertility
- Optimizing resource management
- Alleviating the effects of climate change by reducing carbon emissions and atmospheric CO2 levels
- Increasing biodiversity and ecosystem health
Other principals include:
- Ensuring and developing just and reciprocal relationships amongst stakeholders
- Continually growing and evolving individuals, farms, and communities
- Progressively improving whole agroecosystems (soil, water, and biodiversity)
In 2021, thanks to the Biden administration’s goal of incentivizing farmers to adopt sustainable practices, the regenerative agriculture market exploded. Immediately after this global announcement, many national and international corporations created initiatives for regenerative agriculture.
Conventional agricultural practices focus on plowing and tilling to ready fields for planting however, these practices release CO2 from the soil by exposing organic material at the surface.
Carbon sequestration occurs when plants move carbon dioxide from the atmosphere back into the soil. This occurs during the process of photosynthesis. As soil health improves and becomes more resilient against extreme weather and climate change, less inputs may be required, and crop yields may increase. Healthy soil tends to harbor fewer pests, pathogens, and weeds.
Sadly, it is estimated that since the industrial revolution, about one-third of all human-generated CO2 inputs comes from the degradation of soil organic matter. In addition, about 30-75% of global soil organic matter has been lost thanks to tillage-based farming. Of course, raising livestock such as cattle and greenhouse gas emissions from general agriculture practices contribute to the CO2 problem. Runoff and water siltation from these same agriculture practices promote methane emissions and lead to water pollution. Some studies predict that if global agriculture switched to no-till practices carbon sequestration would triple in less than 15 years.
If regenerative practices can help agriculture become more sustainable then why not use them in horticultural systems as well? In horticulture, the status quo often includes maintaining large tracts of lawns which is a monoculture – a one species growing system. No ecosystem on the earth consists of just one species! Science has clearly shown that monocultures decrease biodiversity which effectively limits the countless important functions nature provides gardens. For example, increasing plant diversity on your property promotes diversity of beneficial insects necessary for pollination and a host of other services.
Monocultures, unlike polycultures, tend to require elevated levels of maintenance to keep them productive. This often means overusing synthetic and organic fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, insecticides etc. Excessively using these chemicals, can cause many negative side effects. Chemicals leave traces on plants and in the soil. Humans and livestock consume much of these crops. Soil microbes cannot easily process these chemicals into organic matter, so the chemicals build up in the soil and travel through it into groundwater supplies. Polluted ground water negatively effects entire ecosystems and living things, including humans. The human species has been and still is at war with nature even though we are intrinsically part of nature. Fighting nature has led us to pollute our air, water, soil, plants, animals and even ourselves.
As more people turn to sustainable methods of gardening, they may take on certain regenerative practices without knowing it. We can restore and protect our garden spaces by planting native woods and meadows, building rain gardens or wildflower areas and creating beautiful, self-sustaining garden ecosystems. Gardeners can create highly functional, regenerative, and sustainable garden systems that last a long time.
How You Too Can Create a Regenerative Landscape
- Allow your chemically treated lawns lie fallow for a year or two so they lose their dependence on chemical inputs
- Before treating your lawn with chemicals, evaluate your soil and identify the nutrients your lawn needs
- Aerate or oxygenate compacted lawns to improve drainage and restore natural vitality
- Test your garden soil to determine what they require for nutrients and amend with natural products like compost
- Read your weeds. Sometimes weeds can tell you what nutrients are missing in your soil. Sometimes they can show how compacted your lawn or garden soils are. Many weeds are also edible and extremely healthy. Reduce or eliminate unwanted weeds by growing self-seeding meadows, ground covers, wildflowers, native or ornamental plants. Never allow invasive or noxious weeds spread. Read about how to effectively manage these weed infestations without using harsh chemicals
- Grow soil health first and your plant health will follow
- Create seasonal habitat for native wildlife and pollinators
- Add a water feature to attract native fauna
- Add a diversity of seasonal plants to your gardens ensuring that plants provide enough nectar or pollen for hungry pollinators
- Allow your lawn to grow 3.5 inches or higher. Doing so conserves water and maintains nutrient-rich grass blades tall enough to shade out weed growth
- Avoid leaving bare soil in your gardens. Bare soil will become populated with weeds, lose precious water, and can become compacted
- Imagine your property as a system of ecosystems and manage them accordingly
- Avoid working against nature. Grow appropriate plants for the location and understand that wildlife is not your enemy
- Observe the many interconnected relationships on your property. What you learn may save you time, money, and effort not to mention help you ensure a healthy landscape
- Build and utilize great compost and mulch your gardens with natural materials
- Install plants that work well with other plants to keep them resilient against insect attack
- Avoid tilling your gardens; instead, add appropriate amounts of material layers to build soil structure and health
- Discuss your plans with other gardeners. Communicate, inspire, and motivate others to utilize similar gardening techniques on their own properties
- Carefully assess your gardens with the goal of growing plants effectively during flooding, drought, heat domes, forest fires and other weather or climate phenomena happening in your area. Mitigate by growing plant varieties that can manage the local climate changes. Plan your garden projects so that they protect your plants instead of leaving them vulnerable
- Avoid killing off non-beneficial insects or pests. Remember that beneficials need to eat too! Many predaceous insects like parasitoid wasps eat non-beneficials like aphids and spider mites. If predaceous insects have no food, they will bypass your property and you will be left with a burgeoning pest attack. Invasive insects are on the rise – the healthier your garden is, the more capable it will be defending itself from attack
If you would like to learn more about how you can create a more regenerative garden on your property, contact KHS Landscape Professionals. We are passionate about this field and about growing food. Call us to book a consultation.